When your comedy career becomes a crutch…

I was reflecting back on the end of my 20s when I had to decide whether to rent a new apartment in St. Louis, or move back to my Dad’s house just before my 30th birthday.  I had less than $1500 to my name, no health insurance, obviously no retirement fund, and a 2003 Ford Escort with over 100,000 miles on it.  My comedy calendar was fairly empty with the exception of a few $100 gigs and a couple of MC weeks here and there.  What was the excuse for a valedictorian with a college degree to be in this situation?  My so-called comedy career.  I’ll get famous some day and get some break where I can finally live up to my potential.  It won’t happen this year, but look at me everyone, I’m living my dream. I don’t think I was alone in this attitude or way of life, but I figured I can help prevent others from falling into it.  

I’m a pretty healthy guy, but any sort of health problem could’ve destroyed my career.  You need health insurance.  Essig sent me an article about a musician who had this problem (read that article here).  To be able to become a professional comic you have to have enough money to get places in a car that works.  Medical bills aren’t an option.  

Want to know what else you can’t have without at least a little money and sense of responsibility?  A healthy relationship with anyone over the age of 25 (if they’re younger, you can assume it won’t be healthy anyway).  You’ll eventually want one of those too, I promise.

I hear young comics all the time swear that comedy is the most important thing to them and that they’ll sacrifice their life and everyone in it to be a touring comic, but I feel that they don’t know what they’re signing up for.  The bigger problem is that a lot of them never get to that full-time touring status yet they’ve still sacrificed any sense of normalcy.  Your 20s are the time where you need to put at least one professional thing on your resumé.  If you’re approaching your late 20s and don’t have a resumé, you’d better be pretty damn funny.

I’m not trying to sound like your dad, but on the last page of my book I had a comic explain it to me.  “Make something of your life.  Do something meaningful.  Think about the next few decades,” he said.  

It’s fine if you have the drive to do this full-time–if you’re willing to make the sacrifice and make it your career.  A career takes over 40 hours a week of hard work.  I was never able to put 40 hours a week into comedy.  I just couldn’t get myself to (sitting in a condo on the road is not work).  If you’re the same way, you’re wasting very important years.  Don’t be the guy who wakes up at 40 and has the same financial worth as the 21-year-old comic who just scored an MC week you’ve been struggling to get for over a decade.  If you’re not building a solid comedy career yet, start building your backup plan in the form of a different profession so that you can afford to keep “chasing your dream” down the road when you grow into a better comic.  Trust me…you’re going to need that health insurance too.

When is the right time to ask a booker for gigs?

Asking for work can be as awkward as asking a person out. Today’s teens have eliminated this terrible ritual with text messaging to avoid having to have any guts at all. They probably have their friends do the texting for them with the person they’re asking out’s friend and somehow a 5th party gets involved. In comedy, texting is not a reliable method to getting work most of the time. There are exceptions, especially if you’re returning to a club for the tenth time and you’re now buddies with the booker/manager. A lot of times you don’t have the cell number of the bookers you’re trying to get work from. The point is, there are other ways to ask for work. And just as important, there are times and ways NOT to ask for work.
Realize that when a booker is booking a show that’s “work.” Yes, it sounds as easy as a yes or not question but you’re not the only comic they’re booking. They have a system of calendars and pairings to worry about. Therefore, do not ask about work in the context of a non-work situation. If they’re on Facebook posting about their children, they don’t want to mix that with emails about work. Do not send your avails via IM through Words With Friends. The same goes for any other time you run into them outside of a working situation (golf course, ballgame, etc.). Use those times to show them that you’re not only social for your own profit.
I got back to my extended metaphor about bookers being like the person you want to ask out (there’s a bigger explanation in Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage). You don’t want the booker to see you and instantly think, “There he is. It’ll be nine seconds before he asks for work. Time to duck out!”
It’s a tough road from beginner comic to someone who is even going to be considered for getting paid to perform (that’s written in my book, too) so you don’t want to screw it up with your awkward social skills. While every booker is different, an email or phone call while they’re at the club during the business day is the best way (a gatekeeper in the box office will prevent you from getting through if they’re going to say “no” on the phone anyway). With some bookers it takes a lot of persistence. Most of them don’t like doing the actual task of getting around to booking. You may have to email every couple of months with your avails. The nice part is, once you get work at that club, perform well, act professional, and tip like Rahn Ramey, the booker will eventually ask you when you’re available.

How long should a comedy show run?

Sometimes I get calls from people who have never put on a comedy show who want to hire me for a gig.  The thing that surprises them most is when I tell them that the show shouldn’t go over 90 minutes.  No matter how great a crowd is, they start to tire (or get too drunk) at the hour and half point.  Yes, there are exceptions.  A big name might do around 75 minutes on his/her own.

Ninety-minute shows aren’t always possible, especially for open mic night.  If you can, experiment from week to week at early and late spots in the show.  Ask whoever runs it if you can go earlier or later if you’re in good standing with them.  (That’s a big if)  At some bars, the crowd tires, at others it fills up.

So this week’s tip, if you’re planning a show, try to keep it at ninety minutes.  If you’re planning an open mic, two hours is probably unavoidable, but if you can trim it down, please do.  Or put the comics who still need to pay their dues at the end after the two-hour mark.  If you want to up your game, take on the challenge of going later in the show.  (I will be doing this more often in the summer when I’m not getting up at 6:00 a.m. to teach the chil’ren all day.)

**If you’re want to give a few guys some longer sets, try this:  Keep the comics at 5 minutes or less when you have a dozen on the list.  I know the math calculates that at 12*5 = only one hour, but then you have time for an MC to warm the crowd up and then let a couple of comics do closer to ten minutes at the end of the show.  (Having a longer set in the middle of an open mic by a strong comic can drain the crowd’s energy.)

I know there are a lot of comics who want to try a ten minute set so gauge how well an MC set would go.  The thing is, most guys in their first two years waste a minute or two with useless/wordy setups.  Knowing you only have five minutes will shave your jokes and make you funnier than having a few throw-away jokes for a seven-ten minute set.  The audience will stay more attentive as well.

For more tips on everything comedy, read Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.

How to survive the midnight show

There aren’t as many clubs that do a three-show Saturday anymore, but in case you encounter one, there are a few adjustments to make.  Last night at the St. Louis Funnybone we had two packed shows leading up to midnight.  With around 65 people who were much younger and drunker than the first two crowds, I made the mistake of not changing my pace.  The midnight show has somewhat of a false reputation as being some wild and crazy drunk-fest, but actually the bigger challenge is keeping them lively and laughing.  The MC actually has an advantage but must know how to handle certain situations that occasionally pop up during these late shifts.  Read about those in Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.  For this entry, I wanted to acknowledge what I did wrong with my pacing last night .  My good friend, the very funny Frankie Chubb and I both admitted we went about our sets the wrong way.  I adjusted only my setlist to some jokes I hadn’t done in the first two shows just to avoid boredom.  Honestly, the reason I hadn’t done those jokes all night is because they aren’t as good.  So the first mistake was putting my interests before the crowd’s.  I also got off on a bad start trying to shush some people stage left.  The woman looked like the lead singer of The Pretenders (A younger blonde version of Chrissie Hynde), but the youngn’s didn’t get my reference…maybe I was wrong, either way, I wasn’t funny.  From that I hurried into my material while feeling the void of the big crowds from the first two shows.  It’s hard to gauge how well a joke is doing in front of 65 people who are mostly out of it, but you have to lower the bar and be patient.  Silence isn’t good, but it’s inevitable while you take a breath between bits (keep it short).  Continue to give off the vibe of confidence and they’ll come around.  Understand that you’re not going to get them into that rolling rhythm you establish in most shows.  It can happen, but it’s tougher by quarter till one in the morning.

Never give up on the set just because it isn’t going well.  It’s like sports in that even when you’re losing by a lot you can still put in a good 4th quarter.  Years ago I bombed for four minutes at a guest set in Little Rock.  My closer worked and after the show I still had a lot of compliments about my set.  A crowd’s memory can be brief and sometimes it just takes one good joke to catch momentum.

So going into a midnight show, be sure to do the following:

1.  If you’re going to adjust your setlist, be sure you know exactly which jokes you’re adjusting.

2.  Be patient yet still energetic.  Silence will happen between jokes, just don’t let it happen during them.

3.  Be careful with crowdwork.  As a non-headliner you shouldn’t be doing much at all, but if there’s a show during the week that will have some, this will be it.  This is especially true for the MC as he or she establishes the tone of the show.

4.  Get to that first punchline before gambling on anything off the top of your head if you can.  Premeditate something that comes off like improv.

5.  Limit your commentary on a joke’s performance.  This is a very bad habit of mine in shows like last night.

It’s impossible to tell how a crowd will be just by looking at them.  I’ve been fooled both ways many times, so don’t assume anything just because it’s the late show.  The more people there the more normal it will be, but most of the time expect crowds well under 100.  And I’m not saying Frankie and I bombed last night.  People laughed, it just wasn’t to the same level as the first two shows.  Still, it’s important to learn from the set.

Well–I’m off to do the Sunday night show which is usually pleasant even with low numbers.  There’s more about Sunday crowds in my book as well.

What are the exceptions to the rule?

It doesn’t happen that often, but at least once a month someone will email me disagreeing with something I’ve written because they’ve been successful doing the opposite.  Stage names, wardrobe, doing blue humor, and so on…  Honestly, I’m happy you’re successful the way you are.  Whatever your quirk is, you get away with it despite what my book or this blog says.  I’m not being sarcastic, congratulations.  However, the majority (I’d put it above 90%) of comics cannot get away with being an exception on a majority of “rules.”  You would agree, right?  Whatever exception to the rule you are, you don’t want everyone else doing that too.  Realize that I’m writing for a bulk of mostly newer comics who want to eventually start making money.  So without trying to sound terse…This week’s tip:  There’s no need to email me because you’re an exception to a rule.  I state that there are always exceptions very early in Don’t Wear Shorts on Stage.  If you want to debate something that I write that applies to a majority of comics, that’s fine.  We’re all mature enough to avoid personal insults.

There are exceptions to almost every rule.  The problem is, you may be taking a longer, less profitable road to get to where you want to be.  If you’re okay with that, that’s your choice, I don’t need to know about it.  If you got there quicker, good job.

That wasn’t much of a tip so I’ll write more.  My friend Chad Wallace (follow him @Black SuperGeek on Twitter), asked about inviting friends to shows .  Frustrated with this issue of friends coming to shows, I wrote this about it over a year ago.  Still, everyone likes to perform to a fuller room so you want to invite them.  My real advice for the week is this:  Don’t send a Facebook invite.  Odds are that if you’ve done this before, they’ve already clicked to ignore all Facebook invites from you.  Mass texts with a picture of the show’s poster is also an annoying no-no.  My suggestion is to send an email individually.  If you have the time (you do), write a short custom email to each of your friends.  I know this takes a lot longer but you’re actually “working” on comedy.  With the time you take to design your fancy poster you could’ve emailed dozens of people individually.

The above advice is of course for newer comics…the rest of us wear our friends out on shows and they usually only come when we’re with someone famous.  Don’t take offense to that.  I wouldn’t go and see me all that often either.  Twice a year is enough.

So what do you do if you’re sick of doing open mic night in front of less than a dozen people?  Buy my book and find out.

And Chad is definitely one of the comics well on his way to bigger crowds.